The Mac Leopard Roars

Mac OS X version 10.5 or Leopard, the latest upgrade to Apple’s Macintosh operating system, created quite a stir when it was released in October. Pictures of excited Mac-heads lining up at mall outlets to buy the new release (for $130) appeared in newspapers and on TV.

For a platform that traditionally has accounted for less than five percent of the total personal computer market, the Mac arguably gets more attention than it deserves – perhaps because Apple is so adept at managing hype. But there are other reasons.

The Mac is finding new market acceptance. According to Gartner analyst firm, its share is now higher than eight percent. This may in part be because of the new ability of Macs to run Windows and Windows applications, making migration from a PC easier. The phenomenal success of Apple’s PC-baiting TV ads has no doubt played a part as well.

There is also growing appreciation in the market for industrial- and human-factor design in technology products – areas where Apple has always excelled. Apple’s iPod music player is one of the main reasons ordinary technology consumers are aware of industrial design at all.

So much for context. Does Leopard live up to all the hype? Yep.

Changing Spots
Apple claims it has made more than 300 changes in all. No doubt it’s counting some fairly minor tweaks. Still, there are plenty of substantive changes.

They’re substantive not only in the sense of making the operating system easier to use – and thus people more productive – but also, and just as important in the Mac universe, in the sense of making it even cooler than it already was. And, oh, way cooler than a Windows PC.

Before you ask: I own a PC. (Though maybe not for long.)

Leopard introduces significant all-new features: Quick Look, a new document preview capability; Spaces, a new way to organize the desktop into work areas; and Time Machine, an easy instant backup utility.

Apple has also made important changes to the desktop, to Finder (the built-in tool for accessing data, applications and configuration options), to the included mail and calendar apps, and to iChat (Apple’s instant messaging and Web conferencing client).

I don’t have space to talk about all of the enhancements, but for a useful summary, visit this page at the Apple site, or view the video at this page.

Leopard is not perfect. Like any new software, there are rough edges, a few glitches, but nothing that makes you lose confidence in the overall quality.

I did receive errors, it froze up occasionally, including once when I had to restart by pressing and holding the power button (shades of Windows). And it seemed to have trouble holding a connection to my Wi-Fi home office network.

A Tidy Desk
The changes are immediately visible on the desktop, some subtle but telling, others more significant.

Mac OS X features a dock at the bottom of the screen. It’s similar to the Windows Taskbar, but simpler, with large icons for available applications, running applications and open documents. They bounce when you click them or when minimized applications want to alert you to some condition.

In the past, the dock could get cluttered as you opened more and more documents or added applications to make them easily accessible. The Stacks feature helps declutter. It lets you easily group documents or applications in stacks that appear as a single icon on the dock.

Leopard comes with two stacks already installed – for downloads and recent documents. You can create others by dragging a folder from Finder to the dock. When you click a stack icon, the individual documents and/or applications in the stack fan out from the dock or pop up in a grid, depending on how many items there are, or which you prefer.

This doesn’t appear so different from the automatic stacking of documents or application instances on the Windows taskbar – except that here you can also stack documents and applications that are not currently open.

Plus, execution is everything when it comes to comparing the two operating systems. The Leopard Stacks feature just works better – stacks pop out faster and they’re easier to take in at a glance because they use big icons – and they look cooler because animated.

The Leopard Spaces Feature

Spaces lets you create multiple task-related workspaces with different open documents and applications.

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Lots of Spaces
Apple also helps you keep a tidy desk with Spaces. It’s a way to create multiple task-related workspaces with different open documents and applications. Only one space is visible at a time.

You could have a general purpose space for Web surfing and mail, separate spaces for each work or home project and a space for games. Each has only the tools, documents and applications in it that you need for that activity, making for an uncluttered desk.

To flip between spaces, press a direction key or the number key of the Space you want (CTRL + number key on laptops). Switching was instantaneous on the MacBook Pro I used to test Leopard, and it’s animated – application and document windows fly in from the sides.

The feature is easy to set up. Click the Spaces icon on the dock and click in the Enable Spaces checkbox. The default is a two-by-two array of spaces, but you can add more or reduce the number by clicking the add and minus buttons. Now go to each Space and open the applications and documents you need for a given task.

A couple of disappointments, though. You can’t have different instances of an application open in two spaces. If Safari (the Mac browser) is already open in one space and you try to open it in another by clicking the dock icon, you’ll jump to the space where it’s already open rather than opening another instance of it in the current space.

And you can’t have different desktops for each space. That would have been nice to help you see at a glance which space you’re in.

The Leopard Quick Look Feature

Quick Look lets you view the contents of most Mac (and some Windows) document types without actually opening the application.

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Look Quick
Quick Look lets you view the contents of most Mac (and some Windows) document types without actually opening the application that created the document.

When you’re browsing a folder, highlight a document, then hit the space bar, and up pops a large thumbnail showing its contents. Hit space bar again to get rid of the thumbnail, or you can click the icon at the bottom to make it full screen.

The great thing is the document is live. You can’t edit it, but you can scroll through it. And media files such as music and movie clips are playable – in fact they start playing automatically.

It’s also possible to combine Quick Look with the Cover Flow functionality that Leopard takes from iTunes and applies now to browsing any folder. Choose the Cover Flow viewing option in a folder instead of icon or list view. You’ll see something like an accordion file with a thumbnail in the center showing the currently selected file and shadowy half-turned thumbnails for other documents in the folder to right or left of it.

As you scroll to the right or left – you can do this on a MacBook by dragging two fingers across the trackpad – the next document flips into the center and its Quick Look contents become visible. When you find the one you want, hit space bar, and up pops the Quick Look preview.

If browsing rather than searching is the best way to find a document, and sometimes it is, this is a very good – and very cool – way of doing it. Where you need to search, using OS X’s Spotlight desktop search utility, you can also use Quick Look and Cover to view results.

Mail Tricks
Because some people send themselves e-mails as reminders, Apple introduced a Note feature in the new version of Mail, the e-mail application included with OS X. It lets you type a note that appears in your inbox without actually being sent as mail.

When you click the Note icon in the Mail toolbar, a yellow notepad page pops up. After you type your note, you can highlight a line or lines and click the To Do button to turn that text into a to-do item with a check box beside it. You can also add due dates and priority levels for to-do items.

After you click Done in the New Note window, Mail puts the note in the Notes folder under Reminders and any to-do items in the To Do folder, and also in your Inbox (unless you turn that feature off).

Apple has also made setting up a mail account easier too, at least with some types of accounts. You just type in a name for the account, the e-mail address and your password and Mail sets it up automatically. It worked for my ISP-provided Yahoo mail account.

Another cool Mail trick: the application can recognize contact and calendar data in the text of a message and lets you add it to a new or existing Address Book or iCal (calendar) item.

The Leopard Time Machine Feature

Time Machine is an instant backup utility that lets you easily recover files.

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Mouse over an address, phone number, e-mail address, time or date and Mail draws a marquee around it. Click the link inside the marquee to pop up a context menu and choose the option to create a new item or add the selected data to an existing item.

It’s uncanny how much of the relevant information Mail can pull from a message to create the new item. It’s not just the data element you started with. When I told Mail to create an iCal item from just the date in a message, iCal was also able to extract the correct time and text for the name of the event.

Time Machine
Apple’s Time Machine backup utility, new with Leopard, may be the piece de resistance. Plug in any USB or Firewire hard drive and Leopard automatically begins the process of setting up an automatic hourly backup, which gives you an exact image of your Mac at intervals going back in time.

If you lose a file, you can launch Time Machine and scroll back through time to a version of your computer that still had it. To restore the file, click on it. Brilliant.

Bottom Line
Leopard isn’t perfect, but it’s still a monster of an OS upgrade. If you’re a Mac-head, go out and buy it now. If you own a PC and you’re thinking of making the switch to Mac, Leopard could clinch the deal.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell
has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print
and online publications since the 1980s.

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